"We've met before, haven't we?" asks Simon Callow as we sit down at L'Escargot for - alas - a dry lunch. (Alcohol does not pass his lips during the day when he is in a play, as he is at the moment at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. After the nightly performance of Simon Gray's The Holy Terror is another matter. Then, he confesses with some satisfaction, he is "the vintner's friend".)
"Not quite met," I reply, but I remind him that he did once write me a charming letter suggesting that we compare our respective penis measurements. "Oh yes, yes," he chuckles. When I add: "But I haven't brought a tape measure along with me," another volley of laughter follows, a staccato but rich ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, like ripe pineapples bouncing off a corrugated iron roof.
Callow's offer came after an episode of on-stage nudity at the Southwark Playhouse last year, which caused flutters among sensitive theatre-goers. Picking up on Callow's declaration that he wanted to be "a big screen to project on, not a DVD or a postage stamp," I wrote: "Some who've seen the play have suggested that what he reveals in his state of déshabillé is closer to a postage stamp than the big screen, but perhaps we'd better not go into that." The actor quickly responded: "No, Sholto, perhaps we better had. I should like to ask him for his evidence in the matter. I hereby challenge the scintillating Sholto to visit my dressing room in Southwark with a tape measure and establish some hard facts. And we'd better have some comparative statistics: perhaps the details of Sholto's own genitals. I'd say it was a matter of pressing and legitimate public concern."
From the Reverend Beebe's playful riverside antics in the James Ivory film A Room with a View (1985) onwards, Callow, now 54, has not demurred at appearing in his birthday suit, a habit that has aroused considerable distress in certain quarters. The London Evening Standard's critic Nicholas de Jongh even claimed to be "gripped by fear of a fresh exposure to his flesh" at the opening night of The Holy Terror. "That imbecile," mutters Callow. "He's seriously, pathologically disordered. He must be sent away somewhere. He gave me my first really good review in 1973 and he's been making up for it ever since - a strange vendetta that's just gone on and on. 'What can I say to really stop this actor from acting ever again' - that's obviously the undercurrent. About a third of his review was devoted to what a trial it had been in his career as a theatre critic to have to watch my naked body on stage - these disgusting, gratuitous glimpses of fat thigh and buttocks. Strange, isn't it? There's a problem." He is an intense person, I say. "Intensely nasty," retorts Callow.
However harsh these sentiments may come across in print, in person Callow delivers them with a lightness that suggests that a long career on stage and celluloid, including the much-loved role of Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and well-received books on Charles Laughton and Orson Welles (he will deliver a second volume on Welles by the end of the year), has left him with sufficient confidence to regard such attacks as mere insect-bites, irritations to be soothed by the balm of a life lived with exuberance and appetite.
These qualities might almost be regarded as having been Callow's birthright, and can only have been encouraged by the bohemian set-up in which he was raised in South Kensington with his mother and grandmother, whom he called "Mater". That sounds rather Victorian, I say. "Ha-ha-ha! She was known as Mater by everybody, I never heard anyone call her Vera," Callow says. "It also sounds quite posh. We were nouveau pauvre, and I suppose that's partly what the Mater thing was about. She did maintain, and used to believe, that they were Habsburgs. Of course, really they were just painters from Düsseldorf, as far from being a Habsburg as you can possibly be."
Maintaining an image no longer reflected by his family's financial circumstances played a large part in the development of Callow's distinctive voice. "My mother believed deeply that the voice was a passport to respect, and to many things you might want," he explains. "My grandmother had an exceptionally musical speaking voice, and they did encourage me to think about the way I spoke. It wasn't a straitjacket, but you must remember that the women I grew up around were powerless; they had no money, they had no men, they had no influence or authority. So they cultivated techniques to get what they wanted or needed."
Even as a child in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, where Callow lived from the age of nine to 12, he was conscious of nurturing this nascent Stradivarius of an instrument. "There was a definite, clear choice. Either I would, as it were, go native, and assume that perhaps not entirely lovely accent, or go even further in the direction that I already spoke to try to maintain the purity of my vowels." Fascinated by this boy who had arrived "from home", local whites would make him stand on a table and declaim "God Save The Queen" just to hear his accent.
During our lunch, I notice a difference in the Callow tones, a swiftness and a clipped quietness lacking the roaring gravy one remembers from his screen roles. In the flesh he seems slimmer, too; his slight paunch suggesting not the consumption of too many burgers but late-night bottles of red wine and feasts of the Provençal cuisine he enjoys. "I particularly like things like duck casserole," he says, "that whole range of tastes that slowly... declare themselves in your mouth." He describes his cooking as "clodding" and "clumsy", but he is being modest.
His personal style is refined, as is his wit. Recalling how his Arcadian expectations of working in a booksellers (his first job) were dashed, he says: "I found myself carrying round large piles of Mills & Boon from one shelf to another. They were mostly going to Pontypridd." The prosaic nature of the contrast does not need to be elucidated. It lands on the humour buds as softly as a delicate amuse bouche. He's self-aware but physically comfortable with his presence: he repeatedly raises a hand to his large lower jaw and rubs it vigorously upwards, rumpling his nose, in which, at other times, he magisterially truffles for mucal barricades daring to obstruct the Callow nasal passages.
The young Simon also had an extreme interest in Catholicism, admitting to displaying "symptoms of religious mania" and creating his own pious sodalities in which he led the prayers. Once he tried to break into the tabernacle in the school chapel to snatch the host stored there. "I wanted it in my hands. I wanted to have Christ's body for my own. I was also fantastically enamoured of the Jesuits. I thought they were wildly glamorous."
Callow once made an undoubtedly glamorous appearance in church himself, but not in a manner of which the Society of Jesus would have approved. "I'd dressed up as a gypsy and raided my mother's cosmetics, using her nail varnish." Her punishment was to refuse to tell him how to take it off; he served as an altar boy the next day in surplice and painted nails.
Callow left the booksellers after writing a long letter to Laurence Olivier telling him what an enlightened organisation he was running at the Old Vic. To his surprise, Olivier wrote back and offered him a job in the box office. "The moment I walked across the foyer of the Old Vic, I just knew that that was going to be my life. In fact, I had the rather strange idea that I would run it one day. I suppose it's still possible, when Mr Spacey's tired of it."
The way into acting, Callow thought, was through university. Failing to win a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, he went to Queen's University, Belfast. Why Ireland? "I wanted to get out of England. I was very uncomfortable in myself. I absolutely knew that I was gay, but I didn't know how to deal with it at all. I thought that if I got out of the country I would be freer - ludicrous, of course, in Ulster at that time."
Although Callow didn't manage to "consummate" an affair in his nine months at Queen's, he did discover a small group of freer thinkers. "There was, curiously, a little enclave of screaming homosexuality in one of the suburbs of Belfast. Raymond, who was the breakfast cook in the digs where I stayed, invited me to his house one night, and there was his boyfriend, Roy, and half a dozen other chaps in full drag, playing whist and referring to each other as Mrs whatever they were. You know, your turn Mrs McAvenny. Very odd."
Only when he attended the Drama Centre in north London did Callow manage to achieve both a personal and a professional ease. "The first 18 months were very tough because I was so resistant to revealing myself. I saw acting as a mask that you put on, this brilliant exterior. The real breakthrough was when each of us had to present a show about a moment in history, and I chose fourth-century BC Athens. My approach was essentially comic. I did it through the medium of this Greek Everyman, whom I called Testicles, in a moment of rare brilliant wit. Somehow playing Testicles really liberated me; I had this sudden surge of energy at my disposal. I was effective in the world, and I'd never really felt myself to be effective up to that point."
While at the Drama Centre, he also found a partner and moved in with him. Later, he was one of the first actors publicly to declare his homosexuality, doing so in his 1984 book Being An Actor (in another he revealed his platonic affair with the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, who was 40 years his senior). "I'm not really an activist," he says, "although I am aware that there are some political acts one can do that actually make a difference, and I think my coming out as a gay man was probably one of the most valuable things I've done in my life. I don't think any actor had done so voluntarily, and I think it helped to change the culture."
What have been his favourite roles? "I liked my performance in A Room with a View quite a lot," he says, pleased that he portrayed "a particular kind of benevolence that I have seen in certain priests". He's also "very happy" with Four Weddings and a Funeral. Do people expect him to be Gareth? "They do, and I am, but only to some extent. Yes, Gareth, c'est moi, but only that part of me. They expect me to be constantly merry, and I'm not, I'm quite melancholy sometimes. I have an inbuilt sense of regret about things."
The Holy Terror, which has garnered good reviews for Callow but not for the playwright, is not one of them, however. "It was my idea to do the play, and it's the most demanding part I've played. I read it in paperback first and thought, 'Pity the poor sod who has to play this,' and now I am that poor sod. It's thrilling to do."
As he strolls towards the Soho sunshine, Simon Callow turns, shakes my hand and admits to another encounter he has no regrets about missing. "Thank you," he says, "for not bringing the tape measure."
'The Holy Terror' at the Duke of York's, St Martin's Lane, London WC2, is booking to 21 August (0870 060 6623)Reuse content